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Tufts Public Health » Injuries, Prevention, Traffic Safety » Vision Zero: Traffic safety in Boston and beyond

Vision Zero: Traffic safety in Boston and beyond

RoadA car struck and injured two women and a boy walking on the Freedom Trail. A duck boat killed a woman riding a motor scooter. A teenager in Dorchester and a surgeon in Back Bay died in collisions with motor vehicles. These and other high-profile crashes in Boston in recent years have motivated new efforts to improve road safety.

Traffic hazards are not unique to Boston. After years of progress, 2015 saw a spike in traffic-related fatalities in the United States: 35,092 deaths. The fraction of fatalities comprised of people “outside the vehicle,” including pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists, has risen to nearly one third in recent years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “human factors” – such as distracted driving, lack of seatbelt use, and alcohol impairment – “contribute to the majority of crashes.”

“For years, traffic safety was considered the domain of law enforcement, not public health,” explains Sue Gallagher, MPH, Director of the Masters of Science in Health Communication Program. She says that public health provides a unique perspective that includes a focus on reducing disparities, such as through “equal access to child safety seats, bike helmets, and neighborhood sidewalks for underserved populations.” Public health also offers the tools of epidemiology: collecting and analyzing data to fuel injury prevention efforts.

Gallagher has witnessed some improvements on Boston’s roads over time. “A lot more drivers stop at crosswalks than they used to,” she says, and Downtown Crossing has been transformed into a pedestrian-friendly zone. However, she also observes many of the same challenges: drivers juggle coffee cups and send texts; parents let young children walk unattended, senior citizens struggle to cross the street at short lights; and cyclists share tight quarters with fast-moving vehicles.

Public and private organizations in Boston have responded to traffic injuries by establishing Vision Zero Boston. The coalition’s goal is to “eliminate fatal and serious traffic crashes in the city by 2030” by addressing a range of factors that impact traffic safety, including the details of everyday language. Supporters encourage people to use the term “crash” rather than “accident.” “Saying ‘accidents’ creates a feeling that accidents happen,” one member explained, “And we want to foster greater accountability.”

The group takes its name from a multi-national movement that originated in Sweden in the late 1990s. Vision Zero’s approach reframes road safety as a design issue. Instead of trying to transform driving behavior by changing the way people think, it focuses on improving infrastructure – separating different speeds of traffic, reducing speeds, and adding features to intersections to minimize conflict. For example, New York has put these ideas into practice by creating “slow zones.” These streets have lower speed limits coupled with speed bumps, markings, and other modifications to help reduce speed. Speed is critical component of safety. Research suggests that an increase in vehicle speed from 20 mph to 30 mph doubles the chance that a crash with a cyclist will be fatal.

Boston’s Vision Zero coalition is planning a similar project, Neighborhood Slow Streets, with pilots in Jamaica Plain and Dorchester. Additional design initiatives include adding protection to intersections and lengthening time to walk across the street at lights. The group also has plans for community engagement to involve residents and data collection to evaluate its efforts. The Vision Zero action plan notes that behind each crash lies a story of an individual person. “By putting a face and a name to these awful events,” it reads, “We reinforce the reality that traffic safety hits close to home for all of us.”

Today, Gallagher sees more collaboration across a variety of disciplines and interest groups, as demonstrated by the Vision Zero coalition. She encourages public health professionals to consider injuries in their work, noting, “Injuries and violence are the leading cause of death up to age 44.” It is important to address “a balance of the three E’s: education, environment, and enforcement,” she concludes. “We need a comprehensive strategy, because emphasis on one thing just won’t work.”

For more information about traffic safety in and around Boston, visit Vision Zero Boston or the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

by Cayla Saret, MPH Candidate ’17

Filed under: Injuries, Prevention, Traffic Safety

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